Book and Film Fuel the Debate Over the U.S. Response to the Holocaust
By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006; D01
Holocaust history is not a field for academic sissies. It takes a certain sang-froid even to approach the topic. And never mind the crackpots and deniers; even among serious scholars there are epic clashes over who really could have derailed Hitler's Final Solution but did not: Pope Pius XII or Franklin Delano Roosevelt? Ordinary Germans or American Jews?
Now, a book defending FDR and a television documentary about Hitler's brand of Darwinism have thrown patriotism and evolution into the mix, and the debate is turning vicious.
Fifty-five historians have signed a letter protesting the new book about Roosevelt because, they say, it impugns the patriotism of scholars who think the United States should have bombed Auschwitz, admitted more refugees and taken other steps to lessen the Nazi genocide.
In "Saving the Jews: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Holocaust," author Robert N. Rosen contends that "from Roosevelt's perspective, everything was done that could reasonably be done for European Jewry." FDR's critics, he writes, are indulging in "America-bashing" and promoting an "anti-American" version of history.
In their Aug. 29 letter to Rosen's New York publisher, Thunder's Mouth Press, the 55 historians from universities in the United States, Canada and Israel say that Rosen's "name-calling and invective" are "deplorable, false, and have no place in serious discussion of the Roosevelt administration's response to one of the greatest moral crises of the Twentieth Century."
And that's the polite response to Rosen's book.
The Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, which recently moved to Washington from suburban Philadelphia, has issued a scathing 33-page rebuttal to "Saving the Jews" that not only takes issue with Rosen's arguments but also accuses him of plagiarism. It lists 21 passages that appear in the book "without quotation marks to indicate that they are another author's words rather than his."
In all cases, however, Rosen does give proper credit to the prior authors in footnotes -- something the Wyman Institute's report neglects to mention.
"People should be careful about throwing around a charge like plagiarism," Rosen said in a telephone interview. "This is a very emotional debate, for them and for me. But we can disagree like gentlemen, I would think."
The Wyman Institute is named for historian David S. Wyman, the author of a 1984 critique of Roosevelt's wartime record, "The Abandonment of the Jews," that is often considered the definitive indictment of U.S. inaction.
Rosen said it's no wonder he is under fierce counterattack, because his book takes on some of the most influential scholars and institutions in the field, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
"I'm glad it has generated some controversy. That was the point of it," he said.
Rosen added, however, that he did not intend to impugn anyone's personal patriotism, only their historical biases.
"The academic world is full of people who really think America is the bad guy -- you know, we were built on slavery, we killed the Indians, we're an imperialist power. There are many left-wing academics who are anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic and don't like America much. I wish I could take credit for that observation, but I'm hardly the first to say it," he said.
Rosen, who is Jewish, blames the "Wyman school" of Holocaust historians for what he believes is a giant intellectual fraud.
"Most people in America today think we should have bombed Auschwitz and American Jews were begging the government to do it, but the Roosevelt administration didn't do it because John J. McCloy, the undersecretary of war, was an anti-Semite. That's the conventional story in a nutshell," he said. "I think it is totally erroneous."
Rosen, 58, is a lawyer with a busy practice in Charleston, S.C., who writes on the side. His last book, "The Jewish Confederates," was a sympathetic look at Jews who fought for the Southern states in the Civil War. He was piqued into writing "Saving the Jews" when he visited Boston's Holocaust Memorial in 2001 and saw an exhibit that said, "By late 1942, the United States and its allies were aware of the death camps but did nothing to destroy them."
As evidence that such statements are not only wrong but deliberately deceptive, Rosen cites a similar exhibit at Washington's U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It shows an Aug. 9, 1944, letter from the World Jewish Congress passing on a Czechoslovakian official's request that the Roosevelt administration bomb Auschwitz.
"They highlighted that letter, but they ignored one subsequent and two previous letters from the World Jewish Congress saying not to bomb Auschwitz because it would kill the Jews there," Rosen said. "The truth is that American Jewish leaders were divided on what to do, and very few were asking Roosevelt to bomb the camps."
Steve Luckert, curator of the Holocaust Museum's permanent exhibition, said he stands by the accuracy of its exhibit. He noted that the main panel on "Why Auschwitz Was Not Bombed" includes this summary: "A few Jewish leaders called for the bombing of the Auschwitz gas chambers; others opposed it. Like some allied officials, both sides feared the death toll or the German propaganda that might exploit any bombing of the camp's prisoners. No one was certain of the results."
"We try to show this issue in a nuanced way," Luckert said. "One thing I have learned in my years as an historian is that things are rarely black and white. New documents are always coming out. What you don't want to do is say, 'All the answers are there; we don't need to do any more digging.' "
The furious response to Rosen's assertions could backfire, bringing him more attention than he would otherwise have received. The book is "selling steadily," said Michele Martin, interim head of Thunder's Mouth Press. Rosen said it has sold about 6,000 copies.
His book has a complimentary afterword by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and blurbs on the back cover from James MacGregor Burns ("an authoritative analysis") and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. ("an essential book"). But it received some withering reviews when it came out in May.
Publishers Weekly called it a "bloated, repetitious volume" that "reads like one long apology" for FDR. The Jerusalem Post called it "a partisan riposte to the decades of serious work on the subject."
Still, the director of the Wyman Institute, Rafael Medoff, said he could not let stand "the ad-hominem attacks and mischaracterizations" of his own and other historians' works in Rosen's "otherwise unoriginal" book.
Medoff said Rosen was correct that Jewish leaders in Palestine initially opposed the bombing of Auschwitz. But, he said, that was because until mid-1944, they thought it was a labor camp, not a death factory. By July of 1944, the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem had received the first eyewitness account of the mass-murder process, known as the Vrba-Wetzler report. After that, Medoff said, Jewish Agency officials around the world lobbied the United States and its allies to bomb Auschwitz and other death camps, to no avail.
Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and one of the 55 signers of the letter protesting Rosen's book, said he thinks that Wyman and Medoff are closer than Rosen to the truth about FDR. But he acknowledged that "this is an ongoing, legitimate debate."
The whole episode, he added, is a reminder of the "twin dangers" of Holocaust research. "There's the danger you become so objective that you grow cold, and there's the danger you become so full of emotion that you can't tolerate anybody disagreeing," he said. "It really shows the wound is still raw. It hasn't turned to ancient history."
While the FDR debate continues to evolve, evangelist D. James Kennedy's Florida-based television and radio organization, Coral Ridge Ministries, has produced a TV documentary and a book linking the Holocaust to the theory of evolution.
Called "Darwin's Deadly Legacy," the documentary aired Aug. 26-27 on Christian cable networks and about 200 television stations across the country. It is now being sold on DVD along with the companion book, "Evolution's Fatal Fruit: How Darwin's Tree of Life Brought Death to Millions." Both describe the Nazis' embrace of eugenics and social Darwinism, their attempt to build a master race and to justify racism, slavery and even murder as survival of the fittest.
Coral Ridge Ministries spokesman John Aman contended that "Darwinism is a philosophy, it's a worldview, and one of the key things in it is that evolution advances by death, so death is a good thing. Hitler thought he was doing civilization a favor by eliminating lives that were not worth living. We of course think that is an egregious moral tragedy and a consequence of the worldview that was initiated by Darwin and popularized by his followers."
Contemporary evolutionists consider eugenics and social Darwinism a perversion of evolutionary theory, not a legitimate extension of Darwin's thought. Some critics have called the documentary a political shot in the battle over creationism, one intended to promote the idea that belief in evolution is a moral slippery slope. Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, accused Kennedy of "trivializing the Holocaust" in a "mendacious attempt to score political points in the culture war."
The Anti-Defamation League also said it had contacted one of the best-known scientists interviewed in the documentary, Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and found that he was misled. Collins speaks in the film about his view that evolution and belief in God are fully compatible, a position he elaborates in his book "The Language of God," published this year.
"I would not have agreed to participate if I had understood that the program would promote the concept of a direct connection between Darwin's theory of evolution and the evils of the Holocaust and the massacre at Columbine High School," Collins said in a written answer to questions from The Post. "My own views on evolution and faith are . . . strongly discordant with the perspective put forward by the producers of this documentary."
Coral Ridge Ministries said it would remove Collins's interview from any future airings of the documentary and would stop using his name to promote it.
"We consider him a fellow Christian and have reached a friendly understanding with him about this matter," Kennedy's organization said.